An exemplary performer should exude three things: charisma, enthusiasm, and talent. Singer songwriter Angel Olsen has every one of these in spades, as indicated by her December 10 performance at Mercury Ballroom. The stop arrives at the heels of Olsen’s latest album release “Phases,” a compilation of B-sides, covers, and other leftover tracks from the past several years of recording. Olsen’s 2016 studio album, “My Woman,” received critical acclaim and year-end accolades from multiple outlets. This week’s performance was proof of Olsen’s place as a unique talent in the sphere of indie rock.
Olsen’s performance was preceded by possibly the most unique and enthralling opener I’ve experienced in some time. Mira Billotte, who goes under the moniker White Magic, gave a 45-minute solo set that included a capella songs, and occasionally a hand drum and Shruti box (a tiny sort of accordion). Billotte’s musical style, derived from a type of travelling troubadour from the middle ages, was trance-inducing and dazzling. Though White Magic may have left a portion of the audience dumbfounded (the music shares virtually no similarities with Olsen’s), I found the set thoroughly engaging.
Olsen and her four backing musicians played for a solid 90 minutes, everyone in top form, especially Olsen herself, whose wild vibrato voice never missed a beat. She shared a highly enjoyable anecdote of a Louisville stop many years ago where the group’s car wouldn’t start and they had to sleep with the pinball machines in Zanzabar. They played a hearty mix of new and old, from Olsen’s early folk days to the newer synth and indie rock material. Apart from having a deeply charismatic stage presence, Olsen can also knock you on your ass. Excellent highlights such as “Shut Up Kiss Me” and “Sister” translated crystal clear to stage. A few songs, however, while beautiful recorded, felt a little lengthy and strung out live. The pre-encore performance ended with an extended jam that seemed to go on a bit longer than it should have. Still, the group Olsen ended strong with an impassioned cover of Bowie’s classic “Five Years.”
In all, Olsen is simply a joy just to be in the presence of. She engaged, entertained and enthralled, all indications of an exceptional performer. I did find myself weary at the length of some songs, but I left the performance satisfied, with the sense that I had just witnessed a special talent at work.